The Story of Uncle Tom's Cabin
On the 29th of June, 1852, Henry Clay died. In that month the two great political parties, in their national conventions, had accepted as a finality all the compromise measures of 1850, and the last hours of the Kentucky statesman were brightened by the thought that his efforts had secured the perpetuity of the Union.
But on the 20th of March, 1852, there had been an event, the significance of which was not taken into account by the political conventions or by Clay, which was to test the conscience of the nation. This was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Was this only an "event," the advent of a new force in politics; was the book merely an abolition pamphlet, or was it a novel, one of the few great masterpieces of fiction that the world has produced? After the lapse of forty-four years and the disappearance of African slavery on this continent, it is perhaps possible to consider this question dispassionately.
The compromise of 1850 satisfied neither the North nor the South. The admission of California as a free State was regarded by Calhoun as fatal to the balance between the free and the slave States, and thereafter a fierce agitation sprang up for the recovery of this loss of balance, and ultimately for Southern preponderance, which resulted in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska war, and the civil war. The fugitive slave law was hateful to the North not only because it was cruel and degrading, but because it was seen to be a move formed for nationalizing slavery. It was unsatisfactory to the South because it was deemed inadequate in its provisions, and because the South did not believe the North would execute it in good faith. So unstable did the compromise seem that in less than a year after the passage of all its measures, Henry Clay and forty-four Senators and Representatives united in a manifesto declaring that they would support no man for office who was not known to be opposed to any disturbance of the settlements of the compromise. When, in February, 1851, the recaptured fugitive slave, Burns, was rescued from the United States officers in Boston, Clay urged the investment of the President with extraordinary power to enforce the law.
Henry Clay was a patriot, a typical American. The republic and its preservation were the passions of his life. Like Lincoln, who was born in the State of his adoption, he was willing to make almost any sacrifice for the maintenance of the Union. He had no sympathy with the system of slavery. There is no doubt that he would have been happy in the belief that it was in the way of gradual and peaceful extinction. With him, it was always the Union before state rights and before slavery. Unlike Lincoln, he had not the clear vision to see that the republic could not endure half slave and half free. He believed that the South, appealing to the compromises of the Constitution, would sacrifice the Union before it would give up slavery, and in fear of this menace he begged the North to conquer its prejudices. We are not liable to overrate his influence as a compromising pacificator from 1832 to 1852. History will no doubt say that it was largely due to him that the war on the Union was postponed to a date when its success was impossible.
It was the fugitive slave law that brought the North face to face with slavery nationalized, and it was the fugitive slave law that produced Uncle Tom's Cabin. The effect of this story was immediate and electric. It went straight to the hearts of tens of thousands of people who had never before considered slavery except as a political institution for which they had no personal responsibility. What was this book, and how did it happen to produce such an effect? It is true that it struck into a time of great irritation and agitation, but in one sense there was nothing new in it. The facts had all been published. For twenty years abolition tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, and books had left little to be revealed, to those who cared to read, as to the nature of slavery or its economic aspects. The evidence was practically all in,--supplied largely by the advertisements of Southern newspapers and by the legislation of the slaveholding States,--but it did not carry conviction; that is, the sort of conviction that results in action. The subject had to be carried home to the conscience. Pamphleteering, convention-holding, sermons, had failed to do this. Even the degrading requirements of the fugitive slave law, which brought shame and humiliation, had not sufficed to fuse the public conscience, emphasize the necessity of obedience to the moral law, and compel recognition of the responsibility of the North for slavery. Evidence had not done this, passionate appeals had not done it, vituperation had not done it. What sort of presentation of the case would gain the public ear and go to the heart? If Mrs. Stowe, in all her fervor, had put forth first the facts in The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which so buttressed her romance, the book would have had no more effect than had followed the like compilations and arraignments. What was needed? If we can discover this, we shall have the secret of this epoch-making novel.
The story of this book has often been told. It is in the nature of a dramatic incident of which the reader never tires any more than the son of Massachusetts does of the minutest details of that famous scene in the Senate Chamber when Webster replied to Hayne.
At the age of twenty-four the author was married and went to live in Cincinnati, where her husband held a chair in the Lane Theological Seminary. There for the first time she was brought into relations with the African race and saw the effects of slavery. She visited slaveholders in Kentucky and had friends among them. In some homes she saw the "patriarchal" institution at its best. The Beecher family were anti-slavery, but they had not been identified with the abolitionists, except perhaps Edward, who was associated with the murdered Lovejoy. It was long a reproach brought by the abolitionists against Henry Ward Beecher that he held entirely aloof from their movement. At Cincinnati, however, the personal aspects of the case were brought home to Mrs. Stowe. She learned the capacities and peculiarities of the negro race. They were her servants; she taught some of them; hunted fugitives applied to her; she ransomed some by her own efforts; every day there came to her knowledge stories of the hunger for freedom, of the ruthless separation of man and wife and mother and child, and of the heroic sufferings of those who ran away from the fearful doom of those "sold down South." These things crowded upon her mind and awoke her deepest compassion. But what could she do against all the laws, the political and commercial interests, the great public apathy? Relieve a case here and there, yes. But to dwell upon the gigantic evil, with no means of making head against it, was to invite insanity.
As late as 1850, when Professor Stowe was called to Bowdoin
College, and the family removed to Brunswick, Maine, Mrs. Stowe
had not felt impelled to the duty she afterwards undertook. "In
fact, it was a sort of general impression upon her mind, as upon
that of many humane people in those days, that the subject was so
dark and painful a one, so involved in difficulty and obscurity,
so utterly beyond human hope or help, that it was of no use to
read, or think, or distress one's self about it." But when she
reached New England the excitement over the fugitive slave law was
at its height. There was a panic in Boston among the colored
people settled there, who were daily fleeing to Canada. Every
mail brought her pitiful letters from Boston, from Illinois, and
elsewhere, of the terror and despair caused by the law. Still
more was the impressed by the apathy of the Christian world at the
North, and surely, she said, the people did not understand what
the "system" was. Appeals were made to her, who had some personal
knowledge of the subject, to take up her pen. The task seemed
beyond her in every way. She was not strong, she was in the midst
of heavy domestic cares, with a young infant, with pupils to whom
she was giving daily lessons, and the limited income of the family
required the strictest economy. The dependence was upon the small
salary of Professor Stowe, and the few dollars she could earn by
an occasional newspaper or magazine article. But the theme burned
in her mind, and finally took this shape: at least she would write
some sketches and show the Christian world what slavery really
was, and what the system was that they were defending. She wanted
to do this with entire fairness, showing all the mitigations of
the "patriarchal" system, and all that individuals concerned in it
could do to alleviate its misery. While pondering this she came
by chance, in a volume of an anti-slavery magazine, upon the
authenticated account of the escape of a woman with her child on
the ice across the Ohio River from Kentucky. She began to
meditate. The faithful slave husband in Kentucky, who had refused
to escape from a master who trusted him, when he was about to be
sold "down river," came to her as a pattern of Uncle Tom, and the
scenes of the story began to form themselves in her mind. "The
first part of the book ever committed to writing [this is the
statement of Mrs. Stowe] was the death of Uncle Tom. This scene
presented itself almost as a tangible vision to her mind while
sitting at the communion-table in the little church in Brunswick.
She was perfectly overcome by it, and could scarcely restrain the
convulsion of tears and sobbings that shook her frame. She
hastened home and wrote it, and her husband being away, read it to
her two sons of ten and twelve years of age. The little fellows
broke out into convulsions of weeping, one of them saying through
Oh, mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the
world! From that time the story can less be said to have been
composed by her than imposed upon her. Scenes, incidents,
conversations rushed upon her with a vividness and importunity
that would not be denied. The book insisted upon getting itself
into being, and would take no denial."
When two or three chapters were written she wrote to her friend, Dr. Bailey, of Washington, the editor of The National Era, to which she had contributed, that she was planning a story that might run through several numbers of the Era. The story was at once applied for, and thereafter weekly installments were sent on regularly, in spite of all cares and distractions. The installments were mostly written during the morning, on a little desk in a corner of the dining-room of the cottage in Brunswick, subject to all the interruptions of house-keeping, her children bursting into the room continually with the importunity of childhood. But they did not break the spell or destroy her abstraction. With a smile and a word and a motion of the hand she would wave them off, and keep on in her magician's work. Long afterwards they recalled this, dimly understood at the time, and wondered at her power of concentration. Usually at night the chapters were read to the family, who followed the story with intense feeling. The narrative ran on for nine months, exciting great interest among the limited readers of the Era, and gaining sympathetic words from the anti-slavery people, but without making any wide impression on the public.
We may pause here in the narrative to note two things: the story was not the work of a novice, and it was written out of abundant experience and from an immense mass of accumulated thought and material. Mrs. Stowe was in her fortieth year. She had been using her pen since she was twelve years old, in extensive correspondence, in occasional essays, in short stories and sketches, some of which appeared in a volume called The Mayflower, published in 1843, and for many years her writing for newspapers and periodicals had added appreciably to the small family income. She was in the maturity of her intellectual powers, she was trained in the art of writing, and she had, as Walter Scott had when he began the Waverley Novels at the age of forty-three, abundant store of materials on which to draw. To be sure, she was on fire with a moral purpose, but she had the dramatic instinct, and she felt that her object would not be reached by writing an abolition tract.
"In shaping her material the author had but one purpose, to show the institution of slavery truly, just as it existed. She had visited in Kentucky; had formed the acquaintance of people who were just, upright, and generous, and yet slave-holders. She had heard their views, and appreciated their situation; she felt that justice required that their difficulties should be recognized and their virtues acknowledged. It was her object to show that the evils of slavery were the inherent evils of a bad system, and not always the fault of those who had become involved in it and were its actual administrators. Then she was convinced that the presentation of slavery alone, in its most dreadful forms, would be a picture of such unrelieved horror and darkness as nobody could be induced to look at. Of set purpose, she sought to light up the darkness by humorous and grotesque episodes, and the presentation of the milder and more amusing phases of slavery, for which her recollection of the never-failing wit and drollery of her former colored friends in Ohio gave her abundant material."
This is her own account of the process, years after. But it is evident that, whether consciously or unconsciously, she did but follow the inevitable law of all great dramatic creators and true story-tellers since literature began.
For this story Mrs. Stowe received from the Era the sum of three hundred dollars. Before it was finished it attracted the attention of Mr. J. P. Jewett, of Boston, a young and then unknown publisher, who offered to issue it in book form. His offer was accepted, but as the tale ran on he became alarmed at its length, and wrote to the author that she was making the story too long for a one-volume novel; that the subject was unpopular; that people would not willingly hear much about it; that one short volume might possibly sell, but that if it grew to two that might prove a fatal obstacle to its success. Mrs. Stowe replied that she did not make the story, that the story made itself, and that she could not stop it till it was done. The publisher hesitated. It is said that a competent literary critic to whom he submitted it sat up all night with the novel, and then reported, "The story has life in it; it will sell." Mr. Jewett proposed to Professor Stowe to publish it on half profits if he would share the expenses. This offer was declined, for the Stowes had no money to advance, and the common royalty of ten per cent on the sales was accepted.
Mrs. Stowe was not interested in this business transaction. She was thinking only of having the book circulated for the effect she had at heart. The intense absorption in the story held her until the virtual end in the death of Uncle Tom, and then it seemed as if the whole vital force had left her. She sank into a profound discouragement. Would this appeal, which she had written with her heart's blood, go for nothing, as all the prayers and tears and strivings had already gone? When the last proof sheets left her hands, "it seemed to her that there was no hope; that nobody would read, nobody would pity; that this frightful system, which had already pursued its victims into the free States, might at last even threaten them in Canada." Resolved to leave nothing undone to attract attention to her cause, she wrote letters and ordered copies of her novel sent to men of prominence who had been known for their anti-slavery sympathies,--to Prince Albert, Macaulay, Charles Dickens, Charles Kingsley, and Lord Carlisle. Then she waited for the result.
She had not long to wait. The success of the book was immediate. Three thousand copies were sold the first day, within a few days ten thousand copies had gone, on the 1st of April a second edition went to press, and thereafter eight presses running day and night were barely able to keep pace with the demand for it. Within a year three hundred thousand copies were sold. No work of fiction ever spread more quickly throughout the reading community or awakened a greater amount of public feeling. It was read by everybody, learned and unlearned, high and low, for it was an appeal to universal human sympathy, and the kindling of this spread the book like wildfire. At first it seemed to go by acclamation. But this was not altogether owing to sympathy with the theme. I believe that it was its power as a novel that carried it largely. The community was generally apathetic when it was not hostile to any real effort to be rid of slavery. This presently appeared. At first there were few dissenting voices from the chorus of praise. But when the effect of the book began to be evident it met with an opposition fiercer and more personal than the great wave of affectionate thankfulness which greeted it at first. The South and the defenders and apologists of slavery everywhere were up in arms. It was denounced in pulpit and in press, and some of the severest things were said of it at the North. The leading religious newspaper of the country, published in New York, declared that it was "anti-Christian."
Mrs. Stowe was twice astonished: first by its extraordinary sale,
and second by the quarter from which the assault on it came. She
herself says that her expectations were strikingly different from
the facts. "She had painted slaveholders as amiable, generous,
and just. She had shown examples among them of the noblest and
most beautiful traits of character; had admitted fully their
temptations, their perplexities, and their difficulties, so that a
friend of hers who had many relatives in the South wrote to her:
Your book is going to be the great pacificator; it will unite
both North and South. Her expectation was that the professed
abolitionists would denounce it as altogether too mild in its
dealings with slaveholders. To her astonishment, it was the
extreme abolitionists who received, and the entire South who rose
up against it."
There is something almost amusing in Mrs. Stowe's honest expectation that the deadliest blow the system ever suffered should have been received thankfully by those whose traditions, education, and interests were all bound up in it. And yet from her point of view it was not altogether unreasonable. Her blackest villain and most loathsome agent of the system, Legree, was a native of Vermont. All her wrath falls upon the slave- traders, the auctioneers, the public whippers, and the overseers, and all these persons and classes were detested by the Southerners to the point of loathing, and were social outcasts. The slave- traders and the overseers were tolerated as perhaps necessary in the system, but they were never admitted into respectable society. This feeling Mrs. Stowe regarded as a condemnation of the system.
Pecuniary reward was the last thing that Mrs. Stowe expected for her disinterested labor, but it suits the world's notion of the fitness of things that this was not altogether wanting. For the millions of copies of Uncle Tom scattered over the world the author could expect nothing, but in her own country her copyright yielded her a moderate return that lifted her out of poverty and enabled her to pursue her philanthropic and literary career. Four months after the publication of the book Professor Stowe was in the publisher's office, and Mr. Jewett asked him how much he expected to receive. "I hope," said Professor Stowe, with a whimsical smile, "that it will be enough to buy my wife a silk dress." The publisher handed him a check for ten thousand dollars.
Before Mrs. Stowe had a response to the letters accompanying the books privately sent to England, the novel was getting known there. Its career in Great Britain paralleled its success in America. In April a copy reached London in the hands of a gentleman who had taken it on the steamer to read. He gave it to Mr. Henry Vizetelly, who submitted it to Mr. David Bogue, a man known for his shrewdness and enterprise. He took a night to consider it, and then declined it, although it was offered to him for five pounds. A Mr. Gilpin also declined it. It was then submitted to Mr. Salisbury, a printer. This taster for the public sat up with the book till four o'clock in the morning, alternately weeping and laughing. Fearing, however, that this result was due to his own weakness, he woke up his wife, whom he describes as a rather strong-minded woman, and finding that the story kept her awake and made her also laugh and cry, he thought it might safely be printed. It seems, therefore, that Mr. Vizetelly ventured to risk five pounds, and the volume was brought out through the nominal agency of Clarke & Company. In the first week an edition of seven thousand was worked off. It made no great stir until the middle of June, but during July it sold at the rate of one thousand a week. By the 20th of August the demand for it was overwhelming. The printing firm was then employing four hundred people in getting it out, and seventeen printing-machines, besides hand-presses. Already one hundred and fifty thousand copies were sold. Mr. Vizetelly disposed of his interest, and a new printing firm began to issue monster editions. About this time the publishers awoke to the fact that any one was at liberty to reprint the book, and the era of cheap literature was initiated, founded on American reprints which cost the publisher no royalty. A shilling edition followed the one-and-sixpence, and then one complete for sixpence. As to the total sale, Mr. Sampson Low reports: "From April to December, 1852, twelve different editions (not reissues) were published, and within the twelve months of its first appearance eighteen different London publishing houses were engaged in supplying the great demand that had set in, the total number of editions being forty, varying from fine illustrated editions at 15s., 10s., and 7s. 6d. to the cheap popular editions of 1s. 9d. and 6d. After carefully analyzing these editions and weighing probabilities with ascertained facts, I am able pretty confidently to say that the aggregate number of copies circulated in Great Britain and the colonies exceeds one and a half millions." Later, abridgments were published.
Almost simultaneously with this furor in England the book made its way on the Continent. Several translations appeared in Germany and France, and for the authorized French edition Mrs. Stowe wrote a new preface, which served thereafter for most of the European editions. I find no record of the order of the translations of the book into foreign languages, but those into some of the Oriental tongues did not appear till several years after the great excitement. The ascertained translations are into twenty-three tongues, namely: Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Flemish, French, German, Hungarian, Illyrian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, modern Greek, Russian, Servian, Siamese, Spanish, Swedish, Wallachian, and Welsh. Into some of these languages several translations were made. In 1878 the British Museum contained thirty-five editions of the original text, and eight editions of abridgments or adaptations.
The story was dramatized in the United States in August, 1852, without the consent or knowledge of the author, and was played most successfully in the leading cities, and subsequently was acted in every capital in Europe. Mrs. Stowe had neglected to secure the dramatic rights, and she derived no benefit from the great popularity of a drama which still holds the stage. From the phenomenal sale of a book which was literally read by the whole world, the author received only the ten per cent on the American editions, and by the laws of her own country her copyright expired before her death.
The narrative of the rise and fortunes of this book would be incomplete without some reference to the response that the author received from England and the Continent, and of her triumphant progress through the British Isles. Her letters accompanying the special copies were almost immediately replied to, generally in terms of enthusiastic and fervent thankfulness for the book, and before midsummer her mail contained letters from all classes of English society. In some of them appeared a curious evidence of the English sensitiveness to criticism. Lord Carlisle and Sir Arthur Helps supplemented their admiration by a protest against the remark in the mouth of one of the characters that "slaves are better off than a large class of the population of England." This occurred in the defense of the institution by St. Clare, but it was treated by the British correspondents as the opinion of Mrs. Stowe. The charge was disposed of in Mrs. Stowe's reply: "The remark on that subject occurs in the dramatic part of the book, in the mouth of an intelligent Southerner. As a fair-minded person, bound to state for both sides all that could be said, in the person of St. Clare, the best that could be said on that point, and what I know IS in fact constantly reiterated, namely, that the laboring class of the South are in many respects, as to physical comfort, in a better condition than the poor in England. This is the slaveholder's stereo-typed apology; a defense it cannot be, unless two wrongs make one right."
In April, 1853, Mr. and Mrs. Stowe and the latter's brother, Charles Beecher, sailed for Europe. Her reception there was like a royal progress. She was met everywhere by deputations and addresses, and the enthusiasm her presence called forth was thoroughly democratic, extending from the highest in rank to the lowest. At Edinburgh there was presented to her a national penny offering, consisting of a thousand golden sovereigns on a magnificent silver salver, an unsolicited contribution in small sums by the people.
At a reception in Stafford House, London, the Duchess of Sutherland presented her with a massive gold bracelet, which has an interesting history. It is made of ten oval links in imitation of slave fetters. On two of the links were the inscriptions "March 25, 1807," the date of the abolition of the slave-trade, and "August 1, 1838," the date of the abolition of slavery in all British territory. The third inscription is "562,848--March 19, 1853," the date of the address of the women of England to the women of America on slavery, and the number of the women who signed. It was Mrs. Stowe's privilege to add to these inscriptions the following: "Emancipation D. C. Apl. 16, '62;" "President's Proclamation Jan. 1, '63;" "Maryland free Oct. 13, '64;" "Missouri free Jan. 11, '65;" and on the clasp link, "Constitution amended by Congress Jan. 31, '65. Constitutional Amendment ratified." Two of the links are vacant. What will the progress of civilization in America offer for the links nine and ten?
One of the most remarkable documents which resulted from Uncle Tom was an address from the women of England to the women of America, acknowledging the complicity in slavery of England, but praying aid in removing from the world "our common crimes and common dishonor," which was presented to Mrs. Stowe in 1853. It was the result of a meeting at Stafford House, and the address, composed by Lord Shaftesbury, was put into the hands of canvassers in England and on the Continent, and as far as Jerusalem. The signatures of 562,848 women were obtained, with their occupations and residences, from the nobility on the steps of the throne down to maids in the kitchen. The address is handsomely engrossed on vellum. The names are contained in twenty-six massive volumes, each fourteen inches high by nine in breadth and three inches thick, inclosed in an oak case. It is believed that this is the most numerously signed address in existence. The value of the address, with so many names collected in haphazard fashion, was much questioned, but its use was apparent in the height of the civil war, when Mrs. Stowe replied to it in one of the most vigorous and noble appeals that ever came from her pen. This powerful reply made a profound impression in England.
This is in brief the story of the book. It is still read, and read the world over, with tears and with laughter; it is still played to excited audiences. Is it a great novel, or was it only an event of an era of agitation and passion? Has it the real dramatic quality--the poet's visualizing of human life--that makes works of fiction, of imagination, live? Till recently, I had not read the book since 1852. I feared to renew acquaintance with it lest I should find only the shell of an exploded cartridge. I took it up at the beginning of a three-hours' railway journey. To my surprise the journey did not seem to last half an hour, and half the time I could not keep back the tears from my eyes. A London critic, full of sympathy with Mrs. Stowe and her work, recently said, "Yet she was not an artist, she was not a great woman." What is greatness? What is art? In 1862 probably no one who knew General Grant would have called him a great man. But he took Vicksburg. This woman did something with her pen,--on the whole, the most remarkable and effective book in her generation. How did she do it? Without art? George Sand said, "In matters of art there is but one rule, to paint and to move. And where shall we find conditions more complete, types more vivid, situations more touching, more original, than in Uncle Tom?" If there is not room in our art for such a book, I think we shall have to stretch our art a little. "Women, too, are here judged and painted with a master hand." This subtle critic, in her overpoweringly tender and enthusiastic review, had already inquired about the capacity of this writer. "Mrs. Stowe is all instinct; it is the very reason that she appears to some not to have talent. Has she not talent? What is talent? Nothing, doubtless, compared to genius; but has she genius? I cannot say that she has talent as one understands it in the world of letters, but she has genius as humanity feels the need of genius,--the genius of goodness, not that of the man of letters, but of the saint." It is admitted that Mrs. Stowe was not a woman of letters in the common acceptation of that term, and it is plain that in the French tribunal, where form is of the substance of the achievement, and which reluctantly overlooked the crudeness of Walter Scott, in France where the best English novel seems a violation of established canons, Uncle Tom would seem to belong where some modern critics place it, with works of the heart, and not of the head. The reviewer is, however, candid: "For a long time we have striven in France against the prolix explanations of Walter Scott. We have cried out against those of Balzac, but on consideration have perceived that the painter of manners and character has never done too much, that every stroke of the pencil was needed for the general effect. Let us learn then to appreciate all kinds of treatment, where the effect is good, and where they bear the seal of a master hand."
It must be admitted to the art critic that the book is defective according to the rules of the modern French romance; that Mrs. Stowe was possessed by her subject, and let her fervid interest in it be felt; that she had a definite purpose. That purpose was to quicken the sense of responsibility of the North by showing the real character of slavery, and to touch the South by showing that the inevitable wrong of it lay in the system rather than in those involved in it. Abundant material was in her hands, and the author burned to make it serviceable. What should she do? She might have done what she did afterwards in The Key, presented to the public a mass of statistics, of legal documents. The evidence would have been unanswerable, but the jury might not have been moved by it; they would have balanced it by considerations of political and commercial expediency. I presume that Mrs. Stowe made no calculation of this kind. She felt her course, and went on in it. What would an artist have done, animated by her purpose and with her material? He would have done what Cervantes did, what Tourgenieff did, what Mrs. Stowe did. He would have dramatized his facts in living personalities, in effective scenes, in vivid pictures of life. Mrs. Stowe exhibited the system of slavery by a succession of dramatized pictures, not always artistically welded together, but always effective as an exhibition of the system. Cervantes also showed a fading feudal romantic condition by a series of amusing and pathetic adventures, grouped rather loosely about a singularly fascinating figure.
Tourgenieff, a more consummate artist, in his hunting scenes exhibited the effect of serfdom upon society, in a series of scenes with no necessary central figure, without comment, and with absolute concealment of any motive. I believe the three writers followed their instincts, without an analytic argument as to the method, as the great painter follows his when he puts an idea upon canvas. He may invent a theory about it afterwards; if he does not, some one else will invent it for him. There are degrees of art. One painter will put in unnecessary accessories, another will exhibit his sympathy too openly, the technique or the composition of another can be criticised. But the question is, is the picture great and effective?
Mrs. Stowe had not Tourgenieff's artistic calmness. Her mind was fused into a white heat with her message. Yet, how did she begin her story? Like an artist, by a highly dramatized scene, in which the actors, by a few strokes of the pen, appear as distinct and unmistakable personalities, marked by individual peculiarities of manner, speech, motive, character, living persons in natural attitudes. The reader becomes interested in a shrewd study of human nature, of a section of life, with its various refinement, coarseness, fastidiousness and vulgarity, its humor and pathos. As he goes on he discovers that every character has been perfectly visualized, accurately limned from the first; that a type has been created which remains consistent, which is never deflected from its integrity by any exigencies of plot. This clear conception of character (not of earmarks and peculiarities adopted as labels), and faithful adhesion to it in all vicissitudes, is one of the rarest and highest attributes of genius. All the chief characters in the book follow this line of absolutely consistent development, from Uncle Tom and Legree down to the most aggravating and contemptible of all, Marie St. Clare. The selfish and hysterical woman has never been so faithfully depicted by any other author.
Distinguished as the novel is by its character-drawing and its pathos, I doubt if it would have captivated the world without its humor. This is of the old-fashioned kind, the large humor of Scott, and again of Cervantes, not verbal pleasantry, not the felicities of Lamb, but the humor of character in action, of situations elaborated with great freedom, and with what may be called a hilarious conception. This quality is never wanting in the book, either for the reader's entertainment by the way, or to heighten the pathos of the narrative by contrast. The introduction of Topsy into the New Orleans household saves us in the dangerous approach to melodrama in the religious passages between Tom and St. Clare. Considering the opportunities of the subject, the book has very little melodrama; one is apt to hear low music on the entrance of little Eva, but we are convinced of the wholesome sanity of the sweet child. And it is to be remarked that some of the most exciting episodes, such as that of Eliza crossing the Ohio River on the floating ice (of which Mr. Ruskin did not approve), are based upon authentic occurrences. The want of unity in construction of which the critics complain is partially explained by the necessity of exhibiting the effect of slavery in its entirety. The parallel plots, one running to Louisiana and the other to Canada, are tied together by this consideration, and not by any real necessity to each other.
There is no doubt that Mrs. Stowe was wholly possessed by her theme, rapt away like a prophet in a vision, and that, in her feeling at the time, it was written through her quite as much as by her. This idea grew upon her mind in the retrospective light of the tremendous stir the story made in the world, so that in her later years she came to regard herself as a providential instrument, and frankly to declare that she did not write the book; "God wrote it." In her own account, when she reached the death of Uncle Tom, "the whole vital force left her." The inspiration there left her, and the end of the story, the weaving together of all the loose ends of the plot, in the joining together almost by miracle the long separated, and the discovery of the relationships, is the conscious invention of the novelist.
It would be perhaps going beyond the province of the critic to remark upon what the author considered the central power of the story, and its power to move the world, the faith of Uncle Tom in the Bible. This appeal to the emotion of millions of readers cannot, however, be overlooked. Many regard the book as effective in regions remote from our perplexities by reason of this grace. When the work was translated into Siamese, the perusal of it by one of the ladies of the court induced her to liberate all her slaves, men, women, and children, one hundred and thirty in all. "Hidden Perfume," for that was the English equivalent of her name, said she was wishful to be good like Harriet Beecher Stowe. And as to the standpoint of Uncle Tom and the Bible, nothing more significant can be cited than this passage from one of the latest writings of Heinrich Heine:--
"The reawakening of my religious feelings I owe to that holy book the Bible. Astonishing that after I have whirled about all my life over all the dance-floors of philosophy, and yielded myself to all the orgies of the intellect, and paid my addresses to all possible systems, without satisfaction like Messalina after a licentious night, I now find myself on the same standpoint where poor Uncle Tom stands,--on that of the Bible! I kneel down by my black brother in the same prayer! What a humiliation! With all my science I have come no further than the poor ignorant negro who has scarce learned to spell. Poor Tom, indeed, seems to have seen deeper things in the holy book than I. . . . Tom, perhaps, understands them better than I, because more flogging occurs in them; that is to say, those ceaseless blows of the whip which have aesthetically disgusted me in reading the Gospels and the Acts. But a poor negro slave reads with his back, and understands better than we do. But I, who used to make citations from Homer, now begin to quote the Bible as Uncle Tom does."
The one indispensable requisite of a great work of imaginative fiction is its universality, its conception and construction so that it will appeal to universal human nature in all races and situations and climates. Uncle Tom's Cabin does that. Considering certain artistic deficiencies, which the French writers perceived, we might say that it was the timeliness of its theme that gave it currency in England and America. But that argument falls before the world-wide interest in it as a mere story, in so many languages, by races unaffected by our own relation to slavery.
It was the opinion of James Russell Lowell that the anti-slavery element in Uncle Tom and Dred stood in the way of a full appreciation, at least in her own country, of the remarkable genius of Mrs. Stowe. Writing in 1859, he said, "From my habits and the tendency of my studies I cannot help looking at things purely from an aesthetic point of view, and what I valued in Uncle Tom was the genius, and not the moral." This had been his impression when he read the book in Paris, long after the whirl of excitement produced by its publication had subsided, and far removed by distance from local influences. Subsequently, in a review, he wrote, "We felt then, and we believe now, that the secret of Mrs. Stowe's power lay in that same genius by which the great successes in creative literature have always been achieved,-- the genius that instinctively goes to the organic elements of human nature, whether under a white skin or a black, and which disregards as trivial the conventions and fictitious notions which make so large a part both of our thinking and feeling. . . . The creative faculty of Mrs. Stowe, like that of Cervantes in Don Quixote and of Fielding in Joseph Andrews, overpowered the narrow specialty of her design, and expanded a local and temporary theme with the cosmopolitanism of genius."
A half-century is not much in the life of a people; it is in time an inadequate test of the staying power of a book. Nothing is more futile than prophecy on contemporary literary work. It is safe, however, to say that Uncle Tom's Cabin has the fundamental qualities, the sure insight into human nature, and the fidelity to the facts of its own time which have from age to age preserved works of genius.
Atlantic Monthly 78 (1896): 311-321.